Juvenile court is a special court that hears cases involving minors charged with crimes. It also handles cases concerning minors who are neglected and abused or are beyond the control of their parents.
The usual age of these minors is under 18, i.e., below the age of majority, but the age of majority varies in different states. A juvenile court does not have jurisdiction in cases where minors are charged as adults. There is no uniform national age standard for when a child’s case is handled in the juvenile court system. Some examples of the age differences are as follows:
- In 44 states, the maximum age of minors who the juvenile courts handle is 17;
- In five states, Georgia, Michigan, Missouri, Texas, and Wisconsin, the maximum age for juvenile court is 16;
- The maximum age for juvenile court jurisdiction in one state, North Carolina, is 15.
There may also be a lower age limit on juvenile court jurisdiction. For example, in California the juvenile court has jurisdiction, or authority, over minors between the ages of 12 and 17 and certain minors under 12. The court can only take jurisdiction over a minor under 12 years old if that child is charged with murder, rape, sodomy, oral copulation, sexual penetration by force, violence, or the threat of great bodily harm. Otherwise, the juvenile court does not hold trials for children under 12.
The procedure in juvenile court is not always adversarial, as it is in regular criminal courts, which have jurisdiction over adult criminal offenders. A minor is entitled to be represented by a lawyer, as is an adult. Parents, social workers, and probation officers will likely be involved in the process because the goal is to achieve positive results and hopefully spare the minor from involvement in future crimes.
A juvenile court is organized to protect and rehabilitate minors under the age of majority. The court does not focus on punishing offenders for committing a crime as the adult criminal court does. Some minors can be in the juvenile court system even though they did not commit a crime.
However, juvenile offenders can be sentenced to jail if their crimes are serious or have criminal records showing repeated offenses. They can even be transferred to state prison upon reaching adulthood at the age of majority with limited maximum sentences, often until the age of 18, 21, 23 or 25. This depends on the law of the state where the minor is prosecuted. In many states, a minor can only be sentenced to a maximum term that ends when they turn 21, even for a serious crime. Everything depends on the laws of the juvenile justice system in the state in which the case arises.
Where parental neglect or loss of control is the issue in a case, the juvenile court may seek out foster homes for the juvenile, treating the child as a ward of the court. Sometimes, a juvenile court’s jurisdiction is described as handling cases of both delinquency and dependency. “Delinquency” refers to crimes committed by minors, and “dependency” includes cases where a person who is not a minor’s parent is appointed by the court to care for a minor or serve as their legal guardian.
Running away and disregarding parental authority if a child is a minor are status offenses. They would not be illegal if an adult committed them. Parents can do one of three things if this happens in their family as follows:
- They can report the child to their local police department;
- They can file a complaint, usually in juvenile court, asking a judge to designate the teen a “youth in crisis” or other designation depending on the terminology in the state in which the family lives;
- Ask a juvenile court judge to declare the teen emancipated, giving the child all the legal powers of an adult and thus relieving the parents of responsibility for their care. This would also relieve the parents of liability for the child’s actions.
If they seek to have the teen declared a youth in crisis, the court can order that the teen return home, not drive a car, attend school, or get mental health or substance abuse counseling. But courts may have only limited authority to enforce orders of this type. In most states, the law does not allow courts to classify children who defy orders of this type as delinquent or hold them in detention. Once again, the exact process and possible results of a court hearing depend on state law.
What Is a Juvenile Non-Offender?
A minor child in the juvenile court system is referred to as a “juvenile non-offender.” While the juvenile may have been charged with a criminal offense, they are still considered “non-offenders.”
What Is a Juvenile Offender?
A juvenile offender is a minor who has committed a crime. The criminal conduct is usually charged as a misdemeanor, such as:
- Graffiti charges;
- Underage drinking violations;
- Simple assault;
- Petty theft charges;
However, minors do commit more serious crimes, such as grand theft auto, carjacking with the threat of force and even murder. In these cases, they may be tried as adults in a traditional criminal court instead of a juvenile court.
How Does a Minor Become a Juvenile Non-Offender?
Typically, minors become part of the juvenile justice system as a non-offender when:
- They are too frequently tardy or absent from school, i.e., truant;
- Their parents are suspected of child abuse;
- Their parents are involved in a domestic violence case.
This leads to the need for intervention by the juvenile court system, which is the one authorized to get involved as it is specially designed to deal with children and teens.
What Is Child Neglect?
Child neglect is a type of child abuse where a minor’s custodian, parent, or guardian fails to provide for the child’s basic physical and emotional needs. Both federal and state laws define the terms “child abuse” and “neglect.” In federal law, there is the Federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, which defines child abuse and neglect as follows:
- Any recent act or failure to act by a parent or caretaker which results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse, or exploitation;
- An act or failure to act which creates a risk of immediate and serious harm.
A common definition of child “neglect” in state law is as follows:
- The failure of a parent or other person with responsibility for a child to provide the child with needed food, clothing, shelter, medical care, or supervision to the point that the child’s health, safety, and well-being are at risk.
Some states identify specific types of neglect in their statutes, such as educational neglect, medical neglect, and abandonment. Some states define exceptions for determining neglect, such as an exemption for medical neglect based on religious belief and practice or an exemption for physical neglect based on financial considerations.
Such legal exemptions in Idaho and other states mean, for example, that if a parent withholds medical treatments for a sick child and instead opts for spiritual treatment through prayer, the child will not be considered “neglected” under the law, even if the child dies.
These exemptions are meant to accommodate the doctrines of certain religious groups, such as Christian Scientists and the Idaho-based Followers of Christ. Some of these groups urge and, in the case of Followers of Christ, sometimes mandate faith-based healing practices instead of the application of medical science.
Currently, in the U.S.,19 states and territories do not have any religious exemptions to civil child abuse and neglect statutes. Also, the law in 17 states and territories have exemptions in their statutes that, in certain cases, a court can order treatment for children, regardless of the parent’s wishes, even when those wishes are based on religion.
Will My Case Be Heard in Juvenile Court If I Am a Juvenile Non-Offender?
Even if a juvenile is a non-offender, their case is still heard in a juvenile court. The minor’s case in this situation is considered a juvenile dependency case.
What Is a Juvenile Dependency Case?
A juvenile dependency case is heard to decide whether a minor should be removed from the primary home. This is not done to punish the minor. Rather, the focus is on the parent.
A juvenile dependency case arises because a parent has hurt their child or failed to care for them. If parents cannot or do not take care of their child properly, the juvenile court may step in. The child may become dependent on the court to protect their well-being. When this happens, the juvenile court may decide that the child should live with relatives who are willing and able to care for them. Or the court may appoint a foster family to care for the child for some time.
In most cases, parents want to have their children live with them. The court may employ social workers to collaborate with the parents to make their home healthy and safe. If they are successful, the child may be able to move back home with the parents.
If parents cannot make their home safe for their child, the court may locate another home for the child with relatives or in a foster home.
Parents should also remember that certain conduct on their part involving their children can result in criminal charges for child abuse. These crimes can be charged as both misdemeanors and felonies. If convicted, the parent offender can be sentenced to time in jail or prison, the payment of fines, probation, and the loss of custody of their child or children.
Do I Need a Lawyer If My Child Is a Juvenile Non-Offender?
If your child is a minor charged with a criminal offense, it is in your best interest to consult a juvenile justice system lawyer to learn more about helping your child. If you are a parent involved in a juvenile dependency case, you want to consult a family law attorney who has handled juvenile dependency cases.
If your child is a minor who has been charged with a criminal offense, it is in your best interest to consult a juvenile justice system lawyer to find out more about helping your child. If you have been accused of child abuse, you want to consult a juvenile lawyer.